How To Raise Dues and Get Away With It
NASO OnBoard September 2005 Newsletter

It was a hot, summer day, and the six-year-old boy’s sidewalk lemonade stand was going into the tank. Even the fruit flies were looking the other way. Soon, he was standing by the backyard pool, crying to his sunbathing mother about the dearth of business despite his very reasonable pricing. In sympathy, his mother dragged her lawn chair out to his place of business to investigate the economic downturn personally. Lemonade sales are a fickle business and soon the little guy was scurrying back and forth to the kitchen for refills. Cars U-turned, seeking lukewarm refreshment. He even got to keep the change sometimes.

There is a difference between price and value. That message also applies to your association membership fees.

Where I live in eastern Iowa, I am a member of two officials associations, one out of the Quad-Cities and one from Iowa City. I pay $15 dues to one, $25 to the other and feel like I get equal benefit from both. As one of about 100 members of the Quad-Cities Officials Association (QCOA), I run some meetings as vice-president for football and get to as many basketball meetings as my schedule will allow. We run a clinic every year for basketball and a little less often for baseball and football. Some membership correspondence is conducted by e-mail but primarily we exist to facilitate training and bring officials together to build the esprit. We have benefit of a free meeting place courtesy of the Moline, Ill.,.school board and the $15 dues we pay doesn’t need to go very far. We make sure to turn a healthy part of the excess back into an end-of-season banquet that is well attended for a very reasonable price.

Sixty-five miles down the road in Iowa City, the Iowa City Athletic Officials Association has a little more than 200 members and covers football, basketball and baseball like the QCOA does. It also runs its own website that has tools for scheduling, tracking sportsmanship ratings, locating and contacting schools and much more. We pay an executive secretary to manage the schedules and broker coverage of games for many local schools. I don’t make it to meetings but it serves me because I work with a football crew there and pick up a lot of basketball games. Some of the news I read on the website is helpful, too. For what is delivered, $25 is a great price.

As board members we seem more aware than OPEC of the effect of price on the mood of our customers. In fact, as I think about it, in the 21 years since I first joined an officials association, I can remember very few fee increases, perhaps because they were trivial or never occurred. We marvel about how a league we work for won’t cough up $10 more a game but but we won’t ask our membership for another five bucks even though we’re still budgeting for 17-cent postage. I suppose some part of that dilemma might come from a latent guilt that unless the state makes us have meetings, we might not exist at all. More likely, we’re hesitant to “squander” money on things the membership doesn’t value.

A lot of sports organizations are starting to utilize various dot-coms that offer web-based scheduling engines for a small annual membership fee. When those things are first mentioned at meetings, it isn’t very long before words like “tax” and “gouge” cross somebody’s lips with no thought given to the savings in stamps and envelopes and interrupted dinners that the new approach provides. Then, before too many months have passed, everybody’s talking about the great idea they had. Face it folks, we officials toss our money around like manhole covers and there’s always going to be some angst about raising fees—but it doesn’t mean the increase isn’t justified.

In my experience, officials will go for things that cost something provided it will relieve the load on their time or increase their competitiveness in the refereeing market—two of the things near the top of most lists of why people drop out of officiating. Our job as board members is to keep an eye out for things that add value to what our membership gets from us and then provide those things responsibly. And yes, sometimes that means you have to raise membership dues to recoup the cost. Just do it.

If your association’s pattern is to continually edge your membership fees upward to a refrain of, “Here we go again,” maybe the thing to do is package your next increase together with something that’s a major step forward—bang for their buck. On the other hand, stop and ask yourself sometimes if you’re still getting value from the things that eat your fees now. Maybe that way you can keep your fees flat if you drop some duds.

Whatever the case, my two association examples illustrate that what’s reasonable for fees depends on your point of view of what’s offered. It’s not as important whether your fees match the expectations of the membership as whether the benefits you provide do. Then one takes care of the other.

Something to think about over a cool lemonade.

Tim Sloan lives in Le Claire, Iowa, and referees high school football and basketball. He previously umpired baseball and officiated football and soccer at the college level.